KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At the Big Ears Festival over the weekend here, I heard a great array of music, created by orchestras and groups of electric guitars and single flutes and hard drives, aggressive and enveloping, rhythmic and ambient. You’re probably making an assumption now: OK, an anything-goes festival. Got it. And your next thought might be: Who’d go to that?
But Big Ears isn’t anything goes, and it doesn’t suffer from the formulaic stasis of so many music festivals in this country. It has a rare, intuitive and ultimately anti-commercial vision, presented with purpose and first-rate sound on a thoughtful scale to a growing audience that isn’t even close to jaded about it. This is why I have gone every year since it started in 2009 — this was its fifth iteration — and I hope to keep going, as one goes to the mountains to see the turning leaves or to the shore to see the waves.
If Big Ears were a series of concentric circles, music informed by the classical tradition would sit at the center, its lessons and suggestions radiating outward. Each year the festival spotlights a composer whose work is presented by many different ensembles and in different situations, and this year the composer in residence was John Luther Adams.
During the weekend, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra performed Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 45-minute work, “Become Ocean.” Some of his chamber music and works by composers that inspired him were played by the local ensemble Nief-Norf. His electronic work “Veils and Vesper,” two six-hour pieces designed to run concurrently, a gorgeous junction of ascending and descending and static tones rendered in the frequency spectrum known as pink noise, were heard as a sound installation in a church. And on Sunday afternoon his large percussion piece “Inuksuit” was staged outside at the Ijams Nature Center, near downtown.
Several years ago, I thought that for the festival to give marquee billing to a living composer from the world of orchestras and notated music and Pulitzers was purely practical: an express lane to legitimacy and capital. (The festival’s biggest sponsor is the Knoxville-based Aslan Foundation, though none of the sponsorships become intrusive or even very visible.) But I don’t think that anymore. I think it’s kind of mystical. These centerpiece eminences — in the past they have included Steve Reich and Terry Riley — have undertaken studies of basic and generative ideas about music, phenomena of repeating rhythms, psychoacoustics, polytonality and how sound illuminates space and time. They have rendered these ideas into clear form, such that any decent ensemble can play them.
And so once you hear “Become Ocean,” with its grand crescendos and elegant symmetries, its gigantic, staggered drift, you have a key. You can easily move outward from the inner circle and make sense of other kinds of gigantic, staggered drift, maybe rougher or more arcane or less quantifiable. Like Sunn O))), at the 1,600-seat Tennessee Theater, which put on a two-hour set of slow-motion processional drones and distorted guitar feedback, loud enough to make the building’s plumbing and masonry rumble. Or like Yo La Tengo, usually a rock trio, which raided the festival’s broad index of performers and turned itself into a seven-piece ambient improvising ensemble. (In a different set, and a sublime one, the regular trio collaborated with the band Lambchop.) Or the pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, playing duets full of articulate abstraction at the Bijou Theater. Drift was important here, for musicians and listeners. But one must always be drifting through something: an atmosphere, a place.
During a conversation between Adams and the conductor Steven Schick on Friday afternoon in front of an audience at Boyd’s Jig & Reel, a bar in the cobblestoned Old City neighborhood here, Schick said something to Adams about his work that the composer has more or less said himself before: “At first your music was about a place. Then it was about place. Then it was a place.” For me, that idea became an adaptable framework for the whole weekend. Thinking about a piece of music as its own locus, an almost physical space to live in and move
through, is less reductive than thinking about it as an example of a genre.
Some of the most provocative parts of Big Ears this year were sound installations, intrinsically rooted in place: They included “Veils and Vesper” in the century-old First Christian Church, and “Lou Reed’s Drones Presented by Laurie Anderson” — six of Reed’s electric guitars leaning against his amps, their hums and cries subtly manipulated by his longtime guitar tech, Stewart Hurwood. (Anderson also played a duet concert with Philip Glass over the weekend, and presided over a bring-your-own-instrument interactive set with Reed’s droning guitars.) But there was otherwise a lot of music here — the folkish singer Angel Olsen, the post-techno musician Andy Stott, the Montreal band Big | Brave — that asked for your attention to the lay of its land, music requiring immersive orientation.
After a slow start in the first few years, the audience here — around 8,000 now, a little less than half-local but generally Southern — has gotten used to the festival. Festivalgoers are primed. For two performances by the saxophonist Anthony Braxton, a venerable musician about as based in jazz per se as Adams is based in classical music per se (which is to say, vestigially), the houses were full and rapt.
And during a rigorous and generous set Saturday by Braxton’s trio, with the vocalist Kyoko Kitamura and the cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, I thought: Maybe it is all about packaging. Maybe, with the right hype, any music, no matter how noncommercial, can generate lines around the block.
But that’s not it. Perhaps these people were here because they knew they wouldn’t be pandered to, and that they would have the excitement of figuring out what this group had to do with them. In that moment of connection, you could imagine this music — passionate, unnamable — becoming part of local culture, one enhancing and cultivating the other.
What it is
Possibly the widest-angle music festival in the country, bridging the spaces between the classical tradition, improvised music, electronics and loud guitars.
8,000 people across four days, from Thursday through Sunday.
Number of events
Around 100, in eight spaces, including a former vaudeville theater, a renovated Depression-era movie palace, a disused church and a nature center.
A flat, wide, boulevard strip of old downtown Knoxville, sloping down toward the railroad lines and cobblestone streets on one side and the Tennessee River on the other.
Over 30, likely Southern, Sun Ra T-shirt. Knows the difference between the composer John Luther Adams and the composer John Adams, but also between John Olson (of the Detroit noise band Wolf Eyes) and Angel Olsen (the indie-folk singer).
The rock band Yo La Tengo was listed on the schedule for a slot Thursday night at the Mill & Mine with no other information, leading one to expect the trio playing its standard set of soft, sentimental songs and explosive jams. What happened instead was a controlled experiment: 90 minutes of lulling, ambient improvising, played by the band and four others it had rounded up from the corners of the festival’s aesthetic map, who hadn’t played with one another before. They were Chris Abrahams, pianist of the minimalist and vaguely jazz-related trio the Necks; Danny Ray Thompson, percussionist and saxophonist from the Sun Ra Arkestra; the harpist Mary Lattimore; and the guitarist Bryce Dessner from the National.
The quickened atmosphere at the Bijou Theater on Friday night, filled to capacity at 700-plus, for the saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton’s 10 + 1tet, what was the music like? Not jazz, not classical, but Braxton’s language appreciated as such, and by normal American standards completely “difficult”: long, twisty, heterophonic lines over extended tones in cello and bass, a percussionist bowing cymbals on their edges, two guitarists adding spikes and accents, the 11 musicians following shapes on graphic scores. Braxton, 70, had never played in Knoxville before, but that wasn’t a liability; through the logic of this festival, it meant that the audience was ready for him.